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Understanding Śaiva Temple Building Outside the Indian Subcontinent – Past and Present

The temple in Śaiva theology is conceived as a powerful, sacred space where various divine energies are invoked and worshipped for the benefit of all creation. Temple construction was a perfect collaboration between the Ācārya and the Sthapati, using the canonical texts of the śaivāgama-s and śilpa śāstra manuals. The rich temple-building culture of Hinduism seems to have been carried to foreign shores at least in part with traders, merchants and emperors.

A temple evokes in the visitor, a sense of beauty in art and in life as well. It lifts up his spirit, elevates him to a higher plane. At the same time, it awakens him to his significance in the grand design of the Creator. It is a structure established on a site that was well chosen and considered most proper after examining and verifying its suitability from various aspects.

Traditional Temple Building

Elaborate rules are laid out in the āgamas about śilpa; describing the quality requirements of the places where temples are to be built; the kind of images to be installed; the materials from which they are to be made; their dimensions, proportions; air circulation; lighting in the temple complex etc. The Mānasāra and Mayamatam are some of the works dealing with these rules. They are the standard texts on śilpa śāstra and they codify the theoretical aspects of all types of constructions; but specifically of temple construction.

Mānasāra is a comprehensive treaty on architecture and iconography. The universality of Vāstu tradition has been represented here. It is also considered as the source book for consulting any doubts and queries.

Mayamatam is a work on dwelling and as such it deals with all the facets of gods’ and men’s dwellings, from the choice of the site to the iconography of the temple walls. Numerous descriptions of villages, towns, temples, houses, mansions and palaces are given precisely. It gives indications for the selection of a proper orientation, right dimensions and of appropriate materials.

Six main styles of temple architecture are Nāgaram, Drāvidam, Vesaram, Sārvadeshikam, Kālingam, Varātham. [1]

Traditional Process of Temple Construction

The temple construction process involves several steps. The procedure is cryptically expressed as ‘karṣanādi pratiṣthāntam,’ meaning beginning with ‘karṣana’ (ploughing) and ending with ‘pratiṣthā’ (installation).

The temple construction project begins with the appointment of a team of experts headed by a qualified and an experienced sthapati, the Ācārya, the director for the temple construction project and the Śilpin (sculptor). They are the key figures in the construction of a temple.

The first step in the construction of a temple is, of course, to look for a proper site. This involves examination of all aspects relating to the location, the extent, the quality of soil, the water source, the environment and astrological suitability of the site. This elongated process goes by the name – Bhūparīkṣā. The temple design team involves the Ācārya, the Sthāpaka (Yajamāna) and the Sthapati in the main, along with the Śilpin (chief sculpture-artist).

Ācārya is the learned preceptor who gives the Yajamāna (one who sponsors the temple project) the necessary advice and guidance in selecting the proper site, in consultation with the Sthapati and the Śilpin(s).

‘The Sthapati (the master builder or the architects) directs the construction. He should be well versed in all the traditional sciences, healthy in mind and body and free from all vices. He should be trustful, joyous and friendly, possessing integrity of mind and body, and control over his senses. The Sūtragrahin (the surveyor) is the son or the disciple of the Sthapati and always carry out his orders with expertise. He should be skilful in measurement by the chord (sūtra) and rod (danḑa), as applied to buildings in their vertical and horizontal proportions. He should know the traditional sciences and should be an expert in drawing. The Takshaka (the carpenter and sculptor) cuts and carves, and is versed in working with wood, stone, iron, brass, copper, gold, silver and clay. He should be learned, kind, faithful and sincere towards his work and team. The Vardhaki, expert in painting, adds to the work accomplished by the takshaka. He should have the knowledge of traditional sciences and be capable of good judgement.’ ~ Chakrabarthi.V

The construction of temple is an art, a science and a complicated creative endeavour with a blend of religion, social sciences, Vāstu and astrology, mathematics, logic, geography, etc. all of which combining harmoniously within the limits of the tradition, guided by immense faith and dedication. The construction technology employed in building a temple; the processes involved during its construction, the human skills required and methods utilized by architects and their team, all of this together bring out the art, science and philosophy behind the construction of the temple. These cover the aspects relating to the site; its selection; examination of a site; determining the orientation of the temple; taking measurements; laying out the temple plan on the site; selection of material; carving of the stones; use of the tool and equipment; and the final assembly of the temple-segments. There might be slight differences that occur due to different grades of materials used for construction; the climate; availability of human resources, its expertise; or the social structure of a particular period.

Temple Layout and its Symbolism

The āgama-s say that the temple structure is a mini cosmos. The temple entrance should face east – the direction of the rising sun. The traditional temple should have at least one entrance, a mahāmanṭapa or a large hall leading to an ardha-manṭapa and then the garba-gṛha sanctum with a śikara/vimāna dome directly above. The entrance could have the rājagopuram tower, advajasthamba in line with the main shrine immediately inside the rājagopuram. Near the dvajasthamba is a lotus shaped pedestal for offerings, called the balipīṭha, after which is the nandi vahana. There is a circumambulation passage or “pradakṣiṇa patha” around the garba-gṛha and mahāmanṭapa.

Temple construction is strictly based on a complex system of tālamāna and āyādilakṣaṇa – measurements and proportions. These proportions control every aspect of a temple’s design, from its width and height to the size of its doorways and mouldings. There are a number of prescribed methods and designs for every small part of the temple.

Traditional Hindu Temples Outside India – Historic Structures

Ancient seafaring empires like the Chola Empire and the Vijayanagara Empire spread their dominion in countries like Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia where the oldest of the Hindu Temples can be found. The earliest of Hindu temples are found in Java; for instance the Shiva temples at Dieng and Idong Songo built by the kings of Sailendra dynasty (6th – 9th century CE). The group of temples of Lara Jonggrang at Paranbanam (9th to 10thcentury CE) is a magnificent example of Hindu temple architecture.

  • Dieng Temple, Java

Dieng Temple is a group of temples located on Dieng Plateau in Wonosobo, Central Java. The vicinity is 2000 meters above sea level, extending around 1900 meters long and 800 meters wide from north to south. It is unclear when they were built, and were estimated to range from mid-7th century to end of 8th century CE; they are the oldest known standing stone structures in Central Java. No written information has been discovered until today concerning the history of Dieng Temple, although scholars consider that these temples were built by kings of Sanjaya dynasty. A stone inscription dated 808 CE, which is the oldest inscription written in ancient Javanese, was discovered in Dieng area. A statue of Shiva found in the area is now kept in the National Museum in Jakarta. Dieng Temple was probably built in two phases. The first phase lasted between late in the 7th century CE and the first quarter of the 8th century CE, which comprised the construction of Arjuna, Semar, Srikandi and Gatutkaca temples. The second phase was to continue the first one, lasting until around 780 CE.

  • Lara Jonggrang Group of Temple, Indonesia

The group of temples of Lara Jonggrang at Paranbanam (9th to 10th century CE) is a magnificent example of Hindu temple architecture. It is a 9th century Hindu temple compound in Special Region of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, dedicated to the Trimūrti, the expression of God as the Creator (Lord Brahma), the Preserver (Lord Vishnu) and the Destroyer (Lord Shiva). The temple compound is located approximately 17 kilometres northeast of the city of Yogyakarta on the boundary between Central Java and Yogyakarta provinces. It is the largest Hindu temple site in Indonesia and the second-largest in Southeast Asia after Angkor Wat. It is characterized by its tall and pointed architecture, typical of Hindu architecture, and by the towering 47-metre-high (154 ft) central building inside a large complex of individual temples. Prambanan temple compounds originally consists of 240 temple structures; which represents the grandeur of ancient Java’s Hindu art and architecture, also considered as a masterpiece of the classical period in Indonesia.

Other major temples are:

  • “Mỹ Sơn”– a cluster of 70 temples built by the Champa Kingdoms in Vietnam (4th century CE)
  • the Chen La temples at Sambor Prei Kuk in Cambodia (7th– 6th century);
  • Temple at Borobudur , Central Java, Indonesia (9th century)
  • the temples of Banteay Srei at Angkor (10th century)
  • the rock-cut temple facades at Tampaksiring of Bali (11th century);
  • Angkor Vat temple complex built by Surya Varman II (12th century);
  • the temple complex at Panataran (Java) built by the kings of Majapahit dynasty (14th century);
  • the mother temple at Beshakh of Bali (14thcentury);
  • Tana Lot of Tabanan, Bali (16th century)

Temple Building Outside India in the Present Times

In the past 200 – 300 years, i.e., the early modern period, many Hindu temples were built in countries like Fiji, Guyana, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, Myanmar, Singapore, South Africa, Tanzania, Réunion, Seychelles, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago and Uganda by the Indian diaspora settled in the respective countries. Many of them followed in the wake of British colonial expansion taking Indian labour to settle in these new shores. The immigrant families then built local temples for worship. Some of these are:

  • Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, Singapore (1855);
  • Sri Murugan Temple Batu Caves, Penang, Malaysia.

In modern times, we can see that temples have been built outside the Indian subcontinent even from the 18th century CE.

For the past 50 years or so, many temples have been built in western countries due to the immigrant Indian diaspora, especially in European countries such as Denmark, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, France as well as New Zealand, Australia, the United States of America and Canada. Some of these are built by religious societies like the BAPS Swaminarayan and ISKCON temples. Some are built by resident Hindu communities. Some are built by non-Indian Hindus – for e.g., Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus.

Due to the immigration of Indians to the western nations, there are Hindu temples being constructed with the help of modern day technologies.

  • Swami Gitananda Ashram built in Italy (1984);
  • Siva Vishnu Temple, California, USA (1998);
  • Sri Venkateswara Swami Temple of Greater Chicago – Aurora, Illinois, USA (1985);
  • Sri Siva Vishnu Temple, Washington DC, USA (1988);
  • BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir – Toronto, Canada (2007);
  • The Paschim Kaashi, Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago (1962).

Challenges in Modern Temple Building

There are unique challenges in building these temples across the world. The planning, design and construction, while following the traditional texts, have to also accommodate several unique local requirements.

  1. Local laws and regulation – There are different building laws and regulations in different regions. These include zoning, maximum height of structure, land utilization rules, permissions and so on. Also, many times, the Hindu community is under pressure to not have their place of worship stand out too much within the architecture of the existing region. Therefore the exterior also needs to comply with local design regulations if any.
  2. Local soil conditions – Depending on the soil quality, and therefore ability to bear weight, the design might have to be compromised to keep the height lower and the construction might have to be planned with different materials.
  3. Local geographic and climatic conditions – Seismic activity and extreme weather conditions have to be taken into account while planning the design and materials, the weight of the walls, the ability to withstand earthquakes and other extreme weather conditions. Most importantly, in an event of a mishap, one should plan to minimize the amount of damage that it might cause.
  4. Multipurpose Utilitarian Spaces – A temple is not only a place of worship but also intended for many other activities such as, teaching of the tradition, celebrating Hindu festivals, holding events and so on. This is especially so in the case of temples abroad which need to function as a multipurpose space.
    1. Cultural Centre – It is often a place where traditional arts and culture are patronised for the benefit and knowledge of the community.
    2. Educational Centre – The temple is also where the younger generation are trained in their tradition, through language classes, dancing and singing classes and other events that often involve activities in local languages and reflecting local customs and traditions.
    3. Community Events – More often than not, the temple is where the community gathers for celebration of Hindu festivals, common holidays and also conducting personal events like weddings, 60th birthday celebrations and so on. So the temple also performs the role of an event space.
    4. Residential spaces – In certain situations, it also has accommodation for the priests to live, so as to enable easier access to the temple and provide more affordable housing.
    5. Kitchen and Canteen – While the temple kitchen is usually used for the preparation of naivedya for the deities, global temples are compelled to serve their communities through their taste buds as well. In many cases, the temple is the place where piping hot traditional meals can be eaten and could be one of the main reasons the temple attracts crowds. Therefore, the kitchen and eating spaces become important.
  5. Restructuring – Not all temples are built as greenfield development. Sometimes, an existing building has to be restructured and converted into a temple, while still following the traditional temple rules. For example, churches are converted into temples.
  6. Cultural Diversity – A temple must be built in such a way that it accommodates all the Hindus from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds, such as Vaishnavism, Jainism, Sikhism etc. It must be able to welcome and celebrate the different sampradayas that each of the group might want to celebrate.

Solutions for Modern Temple Building

Since there are so many issues to be taken into consideration while building a temple overseas while still retaining the āgama prescriptions, it is a great challenge to build abroad. For this, it is critical for the sthapati to be not only well-versed with the traditional knowledge of temple building but also in modern materials and technologies so that one can effectively create a structure that complies with śilpaśāstra as well as local needs.

New material: Due to the geographic conditions, it is difficult sometimes to make a sculptural work with the traditional building materials. The sculptors have to find other modern alternatives that will be suitable according to the client’s needs as well as the laws of the respective foreign land. Some of the newer alternatives include moulds, wax-based adhesive, namely fibre-glass etc., that are being used along with modern construction materials that prove to be lightweight, yet robust and long-lasting.

New processes: With the help of modern advancements, an entire temple can be built, dismantled into parts, shipped to the respective country, and then assembled back in the respective place. As soon as the assembling part gets over, the interior walls and designs will be made, thereby completing the entire temple construction. This is a classic example of the evolution in the temple construction. Our sculptors have shifted from one material to another according to the needs and necessities of the respective construction at hand.

Therefore, making it not just a temple, but a centre for religious and cultural activities these points are kept in mind by the sthapati while constructing a temple in a foreign land.

Case Studies

  1. Traditional Methods: Sri Katpaga Vinayakar Temple, Walthamstow, United Kingdom

In the year 1998, an existing banquet hall was into the temple. It was constructed completely in the traditional way using the materials like brick and mortar and even steel was not used in the construction. The artisans were taken from India to the site of the construction. They were provided with adequate accommodation and a separate space and time to complete their work on time. The construction lasted for about six months and the kumbhābhiṣekam was performed. The existing banquet hall had a west facing entrance and since this was a conversion, they had to build the temple in such a way that the main entrance was west facing, but the sannidhi shrines and manṭapam-s were built facing the east as per āgamaśāstra. The temple also has an entrance facing the south. Since there is a need for a dvāram, there is a glass door installed in front of the mūlavar main deity. There are separate sannidhi shrines for Lord Śiva and Devī, Lord Ganeśa, Lord Kārttikeya, Lord Mahāviṣṇu, Lord Bhairava, Lord Canḑikeśvara and the Navagraha-s. There is a utsava manṭapa and vasanta manṭapa. The temple has a Mūṣika vahana, balipīṭha and also a dvajasthamba. It must be noted that the sizes of the sannidhi-s, balipīṭha and the dvajasthamba are reduced to the smallest a temple can have due to place restrictions.

  1. Traditional and Modern –Fusion Methods: SriSitti Vinayagar Temple, Herning, Denmark

Phase I – Traditional: In the year 2000, a separate place was allocated for the construction of this centre. It was initially built fully in the traditional way using brick, mortar and steel was also used for the construction. The artisans were taken from India to the site of the construction. This centre took approximately six months for the artisans to complete. The kumbhābhiṣekam took place.

Phase II – Traditional and Modern Fusion:The temple was renovated for the next kumbhābhiṣekam in the year 2014. By this time, there were many local rules and regulations issued by the local government that hindered the open expression of the religion. This meant, the temple now required more of temporary and removable designs for the exterior. Also a fresh need for a complete renovation arose due to the materials used during the first time the temple was built. The cement that was used earlier was a locally made one and was completely different from the one the Indian artisans were used to. The mixing technique that they had used was that for the Indian cement, which led to cracking of the cement in the temple. Therefore, during the renovation, fibre glass material was used generously for both interior as well as the exterior designs, to bypass the cement issue as well as comply with local rules.

The temple is east facing and consists of separate sannidhi for Lord Ganeśa, Lord Kārttikeya, Lord Śiva & Goddess Pārvatī, Lord Mahāviṣṇu, Lord Bhairava and Lord Canḑikeśvara. The balipīṭha and dvajasthamba are bigger in size as there was a separate land provided for the temple construction.

  1. Modern Methods: Kurunji Kumaran Temple, Newlands, Wellington, New Zealand

A few Hindu devotees wished to partake in annual Skandaśaṣṭhī celebrations together in the year 1988. It was organized by some of the volunteers and a Hindu devotee provided their hall for the celebration. As the days went by, the devotees wanted to construct a separate temple for Lord Muruga. The owner gave away the premises free of cost, till they found a place to construct a temple. The devotees had bought in individual sponsors from their homeland and slowly bought in the deities for worship.
A land was bought in a commercial area, where a small sized temple could be constructed. Hindus from various cultures came in and a small temple was constructed and bronze idols were installed. In the year 2008, there was an expansion and concrete-based idols were installed.

In the year 2010, the community decided that they wanted to build a proper structure and perform kumbhābhiṣekam to the temple. The main criterion for the construction was that the structure must be able to withstand earthquakes as Wellington is prone to them. Due to this restriction, they were not able to find a proper sthapati who could design an earthquake-prone temple. After approximately two years, in the year 2013, they found asthapati who innovated the traditional structure using a modern day material, namely, fibre glass. The measurements were taken and the base drawings and placements of the prahāra deities were provided by the sthapati. The entire temple was built part by part in India in almost four months and then was shipped to New Zealand for installation, which took a month to complete. There was some damage during the shipment, but the sthapati visited New Zealand personally to rectify those damages and helped them install the temple with the help of other artisans that he had taken from India and other local builders.

For the very first time, a beautiful and colourful south Indian style temple, made completely of fibre glass was completed and handed over to the Hindu Community of Wellington, New Zealand within a span of few months.

In December 2013, the Kumbhābhiṣekam of Kurunji Kumaran Temple, Newlands, Wellington took place as per the āgamaśāstra. The temple is standing strong and beautiful even after eight years, without any kind of issue even after many earthquakes.


It seems to be the golden era of Hindu temple building around the world, following in the wake of a new Hindu renaissance. While the intention is to recreate sacred spaces as described in the āgama śāstra, one also needs to account for local challenges. The need of the hour is innovation within the building tradition without sacrificing the sanctity.

The use of modern material seems like a natural progression. In the early days, temples were constructed using wood, sand and stones. Later on, there was a shift towards the use of limestone as the main material and gradually to cement, concrete, steel rods and wire meshes, thus making the use of modern technologies and materials inevitable.

Even though countries like Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore have the opportunity to use the traditional methods, they seem to enjoy these modern advancements being used in the building of temple components like vāhana, ratha, maṇṭapa, etc.

Traditional sthapati-s trained in the use of modern technology to create temples very similar to the ones that were built by our great ancestors using the traditional methods built not only with precision but also with a touch of modernism in it. They are also able to recreate the magnificent workmanship on the pillars, planes, towers, and entrances. The modern-day paintings too, prove to have a long life in temples where there is high chance of damage due to extreme weather conditions or low maintenance work. It is imperative to acknowledge and admit that the architecture of such temples have become unavoidable in the modern times. These modern technologies are preferred in these foreign nations due to its convenience as compared to that of wood. There is a higher chance of damage that might be caused on the temples, ratha-s and vāhana-s that are being made out of wood. If made of wood, they prove to be heavy compared to those made out of fibre glass, which again sometimes becomes an issue in those countries.

It would be interesting to continue to follow this journey of innovation of our traditional temple building around the world in times to come.


Chakrabarthi.V. “Vastu Vidhya.” P.Oliver. Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture. Cambridge University Press, 1997. 552-553.

Deing, Central Java. 11 June 2014. <,probably%20built%20in%20two%20phases>.

Kamika Agama. Madras: C.Swaminatha Gurukkal, 1975.

Mayamatam. Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 2007.

Prambanam about page. 18 March 2022. <>.

Traditional Science of Architecture. 2018. <>.









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